Sean Pendergast

Super Bowl LI: Patriots 34, Falcons 28 — How to Lose a Game in 10 Plays

Super Bowl LI: Patriots 34, Falcons 28 — How to Lose a Game in 10 Plays
click to enlarge SCREENGRAB/FOX
After a game like the one we saw in the Super Bowl on Sunday night, a comeback for the ages by the New England Patriots, who trailed the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 28-3 in the third quarter, we inevitably get a handful of folks who would swear on the souls of their children that football MUST be fixed.

It's an absurd assertion that on days like Sunday is probably exacerbated by the number of CASUAL fans watching in disbelief as the Falcons unraveled in historic fashion. Never mind that if football were at all scripted, do you really think the powers that be would have waited for 50 Super Bowls to come and go before having a comeback of more than 10 points (the previous biggest comeback)?

That said, it's hard to watch the last nine minutes of Sunday night's game and think that a team could play (and a staff could coach) in such incredibly boneheaded fashion as Atlanta did. When the Patriots were forced to settle for a field goal to make the score 28-12 with 9:44 to go in regulation, their win probability was 0.1%, according to The odds on a comeback were long enough for Falcons owner Arthur Blank to make his way down to the sidelines to be there for the impending celebration.

Instead, Blank experienced impending doom.

A lot HAD to go right, without any negotiation or margin for error, for the Patriots to pull off that historic comeback — Atlanta had to make mistakes, Tom Brady had to be nearly perfect, and the math dictated that they needed two touchdowns AND two 2-point conversions just to send the game to overtime.

As we know now, that's precisely what happened. Here were the ten most pivotal, nonnegotiable plays of the comeback...

3rd and 1, ATL 36 yard line
8:31 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY:  Matt Ryan sacked at the ATL 25 yard line by Donta Hightower, fumbles and the ball is recovered by Alan Branch

In a game filled with incredible, mind-blowing statistics, the one that may haunt Atlanta forever is that they ran the ball five times after going up 28-3. I mean, how is that even possible? And this play should get Kyle Shanahan fired from the 49ers head coaching job before he even gets to pick out curtains for his office. 3rd and 1, and not only is he calling a pass play, but it's clearly something more than just a short play to get the first down, judging by the way Ryan has his eyes downfield. Also, if Freeman just gets a piece of Hightower on that chip block, the Falcons might keep the drive alive and win the Super Bowl.

3rd and 11, ATL 26 yard line
7:03 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Brady pass short left to Malcolm Mitchell to ATL 14 for 12 yards.

There were a few "had to have it" third downs in the comeback. This was the first one. If Brady doesn't complete this ball to Mitchell, the Patriots are facing a do-or-die 4th and long conversion to keep their hopes alive. Mitchell, a fourth-round rookie, was gigantic in the second half for the Pats.

5:56 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: James White rushes up the middle for two points to make it 28-20

This kept the game within one possession and put massive game pressure on the Falcons heading into their next drive.

Still, the Falcons responded. Ryan hit Freeman for a 37-yard screen pass catch-and-run, and a couple of plays later, Julio Jones made this video game catch to get the Falcons in field goal range...
The next few play calls after this are malpractice any way you slice it, but the pain is augmented when you consider that six years ago, the Falcons gutted their draft board to move up and get Jones. It was a move that really set them back from a depth standpoint, but finally paid off this season with Jones establishing himself as the best receiver in the game. The only thing missing was his imprint on a Super Bowl win, and this play was going to be just THAT. It was going to be the reason why you made that deal.

And then Kyle Shanahan happened...

2 and 11, NE 23 yard line
3:56 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Ryan sacked at NE 35 for -12 yards by Trey Flowers

The goal here should now be to STAY in field goal range. You have one of the best kickers in football, and an 11-point lead essentially seals the Super Bowl. At the very least, it puts your win probability back into the 98 to 99 percent range. Instead, Shanahan calls a slow developing pass play and puts his entire franchise in harm's, onto third down...

3rd and 23, NE 35 yard line
3:50 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Ryan pass short left to.Sanu pushed ob at NE 26 for 9 yards, but HOLDING PENALTY on Jake Matthews.

Somewhere, Gary Kubiak was throwing his glass of milk at the TV screen, watching one of his disciples eschew the 3rd and long draw play (a Kubes staple!) for a risky pass play... when the DRAW IS THE RIGHT CALL! Honestly, you're just trying to get back five to ten yards to give Bryant a chance to seal the win. What are you doing, Kyle?!

One other break the Pats caught here — the refs missed a face mask penalty when Sanu's cage got yanked by a Pats defender. If they called the face mask, the penalties would have offset and they would have replayed third down from the 35 yard line, the fringe of field goal range. Instead, it was 3rd and 33 from the 45 yard line, out of field goal range, and Ryan fluttered a harmless incompletion out of bounds. Punt team onto the field, the Pats' hopes are now off life support, with Brady getting the ball back, down 8 points.

3rd and 10, NE 9 yard line
3:17 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Brady pass short right to Hogan to NE 25 for 16 yards and a first down.

Another 3rd and long conversion and avoidance of a do-or-die fourth down. Good to see Richard Smith joining Kyle Shanahan on the "egregious coordinator mistake" list by blitzing Tom Brady. Brady thanks him, I'm sure.

1st and 10, NE 36 yard line
2:28 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Brady circus pass to Julian Edelman to ATL 41 for 23 yards

This was an incredible play, but the reality is Edelman’s making the catch was like the fifth most significant thing on that play. Ahead of it?

1. Alford's missing a chance to ice the game with his second pick (and make a case for MVP honors).

2. The Falcons’ losing their final timeout on their failed challenge of the play, a timeout that would have been handy on their final drive of regulation.

3. The stoppage for the challenge meant the Patriots didn't have to run a forced hurry-up, likely throwaway play to avoid the review.

4. The stoppage also allowed the Patriots to gather themselves, and on the next play Brady hit Amendola for another 20-yard chunk play.

5. If Edelman doesn't catch the ball, it's merely a 2nd and 10. My guess is Brady finds a way to keep the drive going.

0:57 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Brady pass to Amendola who drives a tackler over the goal line

Comeback complete, and while the score was tied, the Patriots may as well have been winning by three touchdowns. This one FELT over.

15:00 to go, 1st OT period
PLAY: Matthew Slater calls HEADS, wins toss, takes the ball

Pretty much over once the Patriots got the ball.....

PLAY 10:
1st and goal, ATL 2 yard line
11:13 to go, 1st OT period
PLAY: Brady pass incomplete to Martellus Bennett, Vic Beasley with the deflection (that needed to be a pick)

This was Atlanta's last chance at pulling out of their nosedive. On your average play like this, Beasley probably can't be counted on to make a one-handed catch, but at this point, it was the only hope for the Falcons. On second down, Josh McDaniels, the Pats’ OC, quickly realized that he doesn't need to "Shanahan" this thing. Just run the ball with the scalding-hot James White and go home.

And they did.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at and like him on Facebook at
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast